It’s happened to all of us.
You can recall every detail about the cute boy who had the locker beside you during your senior year of high school. You can clearly see the bright blue tennis shoes he always wore. His crooked smile comes vividly to mind. He had a mole just at the outer corner of his left eye that you always thought made it look like he was wearing eyeliner. You can even smell that awful cologne he must have bathed in. But no matter how hard you try, you just cannot remember his name.
In the book Idiot Brain: What Your Head Is Really Up To, Dean Burnett explains that there are good reasons for this all too common brain blip.
There’s A Lot Of Info In A Face
Think about it. With just a quick glance, you can tell a person’s age, gender, race, mood, friendliness, and more.
Your brain even has an area dedicated just to facial recognition, the fusiform gyrus. In studies, this part becomes active when someone looks at a face, as opposed to a chair. People who experience damage to their fusiform gyrus lose the ability to recognize faces.
There’s not much to remember in the few words making up a name. (Unless it’s something weird.)
A Name Usually Never Makes It To Long-Term Memory
For a random piece of information, like a name, to make the trip from short-term to long-term memory, it usually has to be repeated or especially noted. Some things can skip this step if they are emotionally charged or important to you. The only guaranteed way to remember a name is to rehearse it.
When you first meet someone, you’re most likely going to engage in the typical polite chit-chat. It would be just plain rude if you stood there, ignoring them while repeating their name to commit it to your long-term memory. Every pleasantry you exchange with them increases the odds of their name being pushed out of your short-term memory before it’s encoded.
The more you interact with someone, each meeting provides the mental rehearsal needed for committing their name to long-term memory, and a conscious effort is no longer necessary.
Long-term Memory Prefers Visual Information
Short term memory is aural. It’s busy focusing on the processing of words and other sounds. This quality is why you have a running internal dialogue in your head and think in words and sentences, rather than pictures. A name is aural information.
In contrast, your long-term memory operates mostly on visual images and semantic qualities, the meaning of words as opposed to the sounds. Rich visual stimuli, like a face, is much more likely to be remembered than the sounds making up someone’s name.
Your Brain Has A Two-Tiered Memory Retrieval System
Even if someone’s name manages to make it to your long-term memory, that’s only half of the battle. You’ve still got to be able to recall it.
Science shows that your brain differentiates between familiarity (recognition) and recall. Your brain labels something or someone who you’ve encountered before as familiar. Familiarity is like knowing that a file exists on your computer. Similarly, your brain doesn’t have to activate a memory to know it’s there. Evolutionarily this skill was an important one because if something was familiar, that means it didn’t kill you. Faces are more likely to recognized as familiar. A name is more likely to require full recall than simple recognition.
How to Remember a Name
Now that you know that your brain is to blame for your inability to put a face with a name, also know that you can reverse the trend. Simply by paying attention and making a conscious effort to remember someone’s name, your brain can get better at the task.
According to the Forbes Magazine article, “The Five Best Tricks To Remember Names,” here are a few ways to help your brain:
1. Meet and repeat.
When you someone tells you their name, repeat it back to them immediately and several times in the natural context of the conversation. Use it again when saying goodbye while looking them in the face and make an effort to commit it to memory.
2. Spell it out.
Ask the person to clarify the spelling of his or her name, especially if it’s an unusual one (wouldn’t work too well with “Jones.”) This technique creates a mental picture of the name.
Make a game of remembering a name. For example, think of an alliterative association with something you know about the person like “Joanne from Jersey.” Or picture an image of something that sounds like the person’s name, rhymes with it, or has an association with them.
4. Make connections.
Another way to use association to remember a name is to make a connection between the person you’re meeting and someone else you know with the same name, i.e. Carrie, like my sister. Have some fun with it. Think of a famous person (or famous to you) who has their first name and shares a similar feature to them.
5. Choose to care.
Most psychologists and memory experts point out that one of the main reasons we forget someone’s name is that we’re not really focused on learning it in the first place. There’s too much else going on competing for your attention. Make a conscious decision that you are going to remember someone’s name and you have a much better chance of doing it.
Just try not to ignore the other person while you’re doing all of this!